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Piles of ancient poop reveal ‘extinction event’ in human gut bacteria

Every meal you eat is digested with the help of the bountiful bacteria thronging your intestines. When you're done digesting, those bacteria are also part of what's excreted. Now, 1000-year-old piles of dried-out poop are offering insights into how the billions-strong bacterial ecosystems in the human gut have been altered by sanitation, processed foods, and antibiotics.

In a study published today in Nature, researchers analyzed ancient DNA from coprolites, or preserved feces, found at the back of rock shelters in Utah and Mexico. The data give scientists their first good look at ancient gut bacterial communities, says Stanford University biologist Justin Sonnenburg. “These paleofeces are the equivalent of a time machine.”

They suggest that over the past millennium, the human gut has experienced an “extinction event,” losing dozens of species and becoming significantly less diverse, says lead author and Harvard Medical School microbiologist Aleksandar Kostic. “These are things we don't get back.”

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